Rabalais: Reasons aplenty Lady Tigers are winning

As coaches do on senior night, Nikki Caldwell wanted to take out seniors Adrienne Webb and Bianca Lutley for a curtain call late in the game Thursday night against Alabama.

“We almost didn’t have anybody to sub in,” Caldwell said.

Freshman forward Derreyal Youngblood had fouled out just a few moments earlier, illustrating the razor’s edge on which the LSU women’s basketball team dances as the calendar moves to March.

Illness and dismissal has thinned the Lady Tigers’ roster from 10 to eight. Seven and a half, Webb joked, considering the tape and wishful thinking that is holding together parts of junior guard Jeanne Kenney these days.

Kenney played just 13 minutes Thursday against Alabama, a game after she smoked then-No. 8-ranked Kentucky for a career-high 22 points. Still, the straw that often stirs LSU’s drink hardly needed to go in for more than brief shot of adrenaline as her team crushed Alabama 76-42.

That’s how well the Lady Tigers Express is humming along through the last month of the season. One of its key cogs spends most of the night in neutral and LSU still manages to match its season high margin of victory.

Sunday, LSU wraps up the regular season at Texas A&M, a game that is a study in contrasts.

The Lady Tigers have won five straight, while the Aggies have lost three of four. LSU has found itself since A&M handed the Lady Tigers their worst loss this season, 74-57 on Feb. 4, while the Aggies have staggered to the finish line of their first SEC campaign.

It will still be a daunting task for LSU to pull off a victory in College Station, but not as much as it once seemed. Three reasons for the Lady Tigers’ late-season momentum are:

Inside job. LSU has made a deliberate effort to pound the ball inside to forward Theresa Plaisance (top five in the SEC in scoring, rebounding and blocks) and get driving play from guards like Webb, Kenney, Lutley and Danielle Ballard.

“We’re not going to settle for just being a jump-shooting team,” Caldwell said. “When you just settle for jump shots, people don’t have to foul you. But when you’re attacking and being aggressive, a lot of players can’t defend off the bounce or one-on-one inside. That’s why we’re getting to the free-throw line.”

Sweet charity. LSU has made more free throws in its five-game winning streak (95 of 120) than its opponents have attempted by far (34 of 50), always the mark of a team playing well.

Zoned out. A player fouling out like Youngblood has been a rare thing for LSU — the last time that happened was Jan. 31 at Auburn. The key, Caldwell said, is the defense the Lady Tigers play.

“We play a zone so we’re not overextending,” Caldwell explained. “We play a support zone. We’re not pressing. We don’t really position ourselves to foul.”

Mostly, LSU is positioning itself to win, and to finish the season in a way that looked nearly impossible the last time it played A&M.